- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A federal highway bill that cleared Congress on Thursday gives hundreds of millions of dollars to Wyoming through the federal abandoned mines program.

Wyoming’s congressional delegation praised the measure, saying it qualifies the state for $242 million immediately and $350 million in the years to come. The Abandoned Mine Lands program assesses a fee on mined coal to clean up abandoned coal mines.

Wyoming does not have any abandoned mines but is the nation’s top coal-producing state, and for years received an especially large share of AML funding. The state put it to a variety of other uses besides mines, including basketball arena renovations at the University of Wyoming. But Congress reduced Wyoming’s cut by hundreds of millions of dollars by voting in 2012 to limit each state’s share to $15 million.

“This is about returning money that rightfully belongs to the people of Wyoming that was raided in the 2012 highway bill,” Sen. Mike Enzi said Thursday. “Trust funds such as AML set aside money for a specific reason and should not be poached by politicians. It’s money from Wyoming for Wyoming.”

Sen. John Barasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis echoed Enzi’s comments, saying the money had been wrongly stripped from Wyoming.

The $305 billion highway bill was approved 359 to 65 in the House, and 83 to 16 in the Senate. It was laden with enough industry favors, parochial projects, safety improvements and union demands to gain overwhelming support.

A big shortcoming in the bill, though, is how it is all financed.

The main source of revenue for transportation is a trust fund, which comes mostly from the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax. That tax has not been raised since 1993 even though transportation spending has increased. But raising the gas tax is viewed by many lawmakers as too politically risky.

To make up the shortfall, the bill uses about $70 billion in mostly budget gimmicks, including one that would move $53 billion from the Federal Reserve Bank’s capital account to the general treasury. It’s counted as new money on paper, but is actually just a transfer of funds from one government account to another, federal budget experts said.

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Associated Press writer Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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